Palace Building constructed by a sultan in the 19th century
Numerous past celebrity guests
Far from the tourist sights in Sultanahmet
Beds have comforters instead of duvets
No iPod docks (though TVs have media hookups)
Formerly the palace of an Ottoman Sultan, the Ciragan Palace Kempinski is the grand dame of Istanbul. It wows guests at every turn, from the sprawling, manicured grounds, to the heated infinity pool right on the Bosphorus, to the refined suites. The dining options are extensive and exceptional; the spa is lovely; and the meeting space housed in the original palace building makes an ornate setting for a business function or wedding. It's arguably the city's top luxury option, but it's far from the popular tourist sights in Sultanahmet.
A top luxury resort on the Bosphorus, partially housed in a former Ottoman palace
The Ciragan Palace Kempinski is housed in two main buildings: one built in the 1990s that houses most of the hotel rooms, and another built in the 1860s by Sultan Abdulaziz, housing meeting space, Tugra Restaurant, and the hotel's 11 most exclusive suites. Only the facade of the Palace Building is original, as it was ravaged by a fire in 1910.
Ciragan Palace has the rare distinction of being reachable by three modes of transport: car, boat, and helicopter (there's a helipad near the Palace Building). The hotel's historic footprint on a prime stretch along the Bosphorus allows for beautiful, sprawling grounds that often can't be found at newer luxury hotels, which tend to build upward rather than outward.
The atmosphere inside the elegant lobby is busy but somehow still subdued. Picture corporate guests rushing through, heels clacking on the marble floors; new guests queuing up for check-in in front of the two long curved wooden desks; and small groups sipping tea or typing on laptops on the delicate Louis XV furniture that lines the grand corridor leading up to Gazebo Lounge. Plenty of touches honor the site's Ottoman past, such as Ottoman carpets in rooms and some common spaces, gorgeous tile work displays embedded in the walls, and in the Palace Building, ornate marble columns and chandeliers.
As a safety measure, there's a security scanner for baggage at the lobby entrance.
Besiktas (pronounced Beshiktash) is a mostly local residential and business neighborhood northeast of Beyoglu. There are a few sights here, including Dolmabahce Palace, the Besiktas Market, and the Inonu football stadium, but reaching the more popular tourist sights in Sultanahmet will require a taxi drive, tram ride, or ferry ride. There are ferry stops departing for Uskudar on the Asian Side of Istanbul or for the Galata Bridge.
Istanbul is a city of contrasts. It's a city that's both modern and ancient, where great restaurants, hopping nightlife, and horrific traffic exist alongside some of the world's most impressive ancient wonders. It's both western and eastern, culturally as well as geographically: It's the only city in the world on two continents (Europe and Asia). A visitor can listen to the Muslim call to prayer while standing in the shadow of the Blue Mosque and feel transported to another time -- or go clubbing after nightfall with Istanbul's trendy urbanites. Though Istanbul is predominately Muslim, there's a clear divide between the secular, westernized population and the conservative Muslims: as a result, it's not unusual to see women in chic western dress alongside women in burqas. And a smattering of other faiths also call Istanbul home, including Greek Orthodox Christians and Jews (European Jews first sought refuge in Istanbul during the Inquisition).
The Turks are famous for their hospitality, and tourists, including Americans, should feel very welcome here. Though it's good to be cautious in any large city, Istanbul's crime rates are relatively low and most tourists won't have much to worry about aside from getting occasionally overcharged by taxi drivers.
3-minute drive to Besiktas ferry stop
4-minute drive to Dolmabahce Palace
6-minute drive to BJK Inonu Stadium for football matches
8-minute drive to Taksim Square
9-minute drive to the Rumeli Citadel, an Ottoman castle dating to the 1400s
10-minute drive to Istiklal Avenue, the main pedestrian thoroughfare in Beyoglu
15-minute drive to Sultanahmet
40-minute drive to Ataturk International Airport (can be an hour or more in bad traffic)
Refined rooms and posh suites, many with Bosphorus views
Ciragan Palace has a number of different room and suite categories, and almost all of the units are housed in the main building constructed in the 1990s. The last renovation was in 2007, and rooms have classic decor: understated beige carpets with Ottoman patterns, a color palette of blues and corals, and marble bathrooms. There are no iPod docks, but the flat-screen TVs have media hookups.
The sweeping Bosphorus views are one of the main advantages of staying here rather than in the tourist center, so many will find it worth upgrading from a park view. In the rooms that do face the straight, the views are the clear highlight.
For those really looking to splurge, the hotel has 11 exclusive Palace Suites housed in the historic Palace Building. The finest of these is called the Sultan Suite, and has a rack rate of €30,000. It's enormous -- over 4,000 square feet -- with two bedrooms, postcard-perfect Bosphorus views through huge floor-to-ceiling windows, and grand Ottoman decor. Past celebrity guests of this suite have included Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and Madonna.
Quality bedding (though there are comforters rather than duvets)
Flat-screen TVs with on-demand movies and media hookups
A gorgeous heated infinity pool right on the Bosphorus
The hotel's chic infinity pool is heated year-round and has sweeping views of the Bosphorus. It's one of the best features of the entire hotel. A heated cabana is available for guests to warm up during the cooler months and a poolside butler delivers chilled towels in the warmer months. There's also a poolside bar open seasonally. Lounge chairs have wooden slats.
There's also an indoor pool and whirlpool available in the spa. The indoor pool area has neoclassical style and cushioned lounge chairs with nautical white and blue stripes.
The spa area offers treatment rooms (including a couples room and a room with a soaking tub), a relaxation lounge with sauna and steam room, and changing rooms with showers. The marble hammam has a typical layout, with a square marble platform for lying out surrounded by numerous taps with marble and copper basins.
Three excellent restaurants, all with Bosphorus views, and a seasonal outdoor terrace grill
Tugra Restaurant is housed in the Palace Building and offers phenomenal Turkish fine dining. It's a hushed, formal atmosphere with white tablecloths, candlelight, wall murals, and gauzy white curtains framing exquisite Bosphorus views. Service is very attentive, and the Turkish cuisine is delicious and carefully presented. During my meal, I sampled an amuse-bouche of minced beef and mashed potatoes, piruhi (a Turkish triangle pasta stuffed with minced meet, served in a yogurt tomato sauce), and for the entree, the chef's specialty: perfectly tender lamb loin Kulbatsi with pomegranate and onion sauce. Even discerning diners are likely to be impressed.
Gazebo Lounge, located directly off the lobby on the first floor, serves a breakfast buffet and a renowned afternoon tea. There's also a patisserie counter selling sweets until late.
Laledan Restaurant on the first floor in the main building is famous for its Sunday Brunch, and offers an impressive breakfast buffet daily. It also serves comfort food for lunch and dinner.
Bosphorus Grill is a terrace restaurant open seasonally.
Numerous celebrities have stayed here, including Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey.
So many celebrities have stayed at the Ciragan Palace Kempinski that the hotel has a wall of fame off of the lobby with photos of all the notable past guests. To name just a handful: Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Madonna, John F. Kennedy Jr., Sophia Loren, Robert De Niro, Silvio Berlusconi, Kofi Annan, and U2.